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Marie Curie’s year

We just passed the 155th anniversary of Marie Curie’s birth. She was born Nov. 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. She was the first woman scientist to win a Nobel Prize – 1903 in physics and in 1911, a second, in chemistry. Both accomplishments came up recently in two local theatrical productions.

Merely Players is presenting “The Half-life of Marie Curie” through Sunday. It’s a remarkable new work by American playwright Lauren Gunderson. She has set her 90-minute play right after the second Nobel announcement. But Curie is not celebrating. Six years before, her husband, Pierre, died suddenly, and Curie is still in deep mourning. She is also struggling to raise their two young daughters and keep her research current. To make matters worse, she fell into an affair with a married man, which has turned into an international scandal. Parisian reporters hound her daily.

Gunderson set the play in the depths of Curie’s depression and confusion. The drama unfolds when Curie’s friend, Hertha Ayrton, an accomplished engineer, widow, and mother, appears. It’s historically accurate and imaginatively developed as Ayrton offers healing support and a retreat to England.

If you go

WHAT: “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” a play by Lauren Gunderson, presented by Merely Players, directed by Mona Wood-Patterson.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday (Nov. 18) and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Merely Underground, 789 Tech Center Drive.

ADMISSION: $30, available online at https://bit.ly/3UKpnpF.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit merelyplayers.org or call 749-8585.

Plays about the power of friendship are as rare these days as plays about the compelling life of the mind. But those and the two threads that move through many of Gunderson’s works. Last April, Fort Lewis College presented another two-hander about friendship and intellectual passion. “I & You” centered not on two accomplished scientists, but on two high school students studying Walt Whitman’s poetry. The play ended in a remarkably surprising and fulfilling conclusion. So, too, does Gunderson’s examination of the friendship between Curie and Ayrton.

Performed by two of our finest actors, Sarah Choszczyk and Maureen May, Gunderson’s work unfolds rapidly and moves to a stunning climax. The playwright mixes a variety of techniques: direct address, dialogue, soliloquy, and mime. And Director Mona Wood-Patterson and her creative team have clarified the complex story with brilliant theatrical techniques, set, sound, and lighting design, mixing contemporary and period elements. Technical Director Charles Ford has developed a spare, multilevel set, which symbolically differentiates urban Paris from coastal Britain JoAnn Nevils has crafted perfect period costumes. To underscore key moments, like Curie’s transformative underwater experience, every theatrical illusion merges to show why and how Curie moves on.

Earlier this fall, living-history performer Susan Marie Frontczak gave a solo-show about Curie in the FLC Life-long Learning Series. On Sept. 22, Frontczak came down from Denver to deliver her Chautauqua-style performance in a first-person format. Of Polish descent herself, Frontczak appeared as Curie at the time of her first Nobel in 1903. In period costume and with a Polish-French accent, she demonstrated the discovery and mystery of radium, holding up a small, shimmering vile of blue. She slipped it back into her pocket and explained why she kept the radioactive vial – it reminded her of her husband.

That gesture figures prominently in the Gunderson play. Carrying dangerous, life-threatening material turned out to be the reason behind a break in the Curie-Ayrton friendship. But Gunderson’s play also shows how that rift was repaired.

Belated birthday greetings, Marie Curie.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.